Recent events in Afghanistan: Quick lessons for Nigeria



By Johnson Olawumi

On Monday 16th August 2021, the sight on CNN of an American military aircraft C-17 taxing on the tarmac of Kabul Airport with several Afghans, some hanging, clinging and running alongside for a possible boarding out of the country, will linger for years to come. Of course, examples abound of such historic and memorable sights on television; the killing of 12 US soldiers and dragging of their bodies through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia in October 1993 and the toppling down of Saddam Hussein’s effigy in Firdos Square in Baghdad after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 drew global attention and remains indelible in our memory. Not a few watchers of events in Afghanistan were surprised at the turn of events that led to the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan’s political capital, back into the hands of the Taliban. The blitzkrieg fashion with which the Taliban seized every important town around the capital was undoubtedly exacerbated by the actions and inactions of some of the global powers, particularly the US.

Observers would recall that in his remarks on the drawdown plans on 8 July 2021, President Joe Biden was emphatic that the US mission in Afghanistan will conclude on 31 August 2021. On that occasion, President Biden stated clearly that “we did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build, ….it is the right and responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.” This statement was not lost on the Taliban, as events after that would reveal. By the second week of August, Taliban fighters have surrounded Kabul and claimed key towns of Aybak, Kunduz, Taluqan, Faizabad, Maidan and Jalalabad, the fifth largest city in Afghanistan just about 130 km from the capital Kabul. Suddenly, all the foreign intervention has come to nought, and indeed Afghanistan has been left in the hands of not the legitimate government but the Taliban, who have fought for nearly 20 years since it was ousted in 2001. There is significant uncertainty in the country, and no one is sure of the future.

One question that keeps begging for an answer is, what has been the impact of all the assistance offered to the Afghan government by the US and its NATO Allies for the past two decades? From account, the US and NATO Allies, including their partners, have trained and equipped over 300,000 current serving members of the Afghan National Security Force, not including hundreds of thousands trained in the past two decades who are no longer serving. Apart from this, the Afghan security forces have had the opportunity of training and operating with the US and its Allies, providing them with intelligence and many of their military officers trained in some of the best military institutions in the US and UK.

There is no doubt that the Taliban takeover will have some global implications. Firstly, it will present some human rights problems by their antecedents while it sways from 1996-2001. The Taliban has been known for carrying out public executions of its perceived opponents, denying education to women and persecuting minorities. There is also the issue of Afghanistan becoming a haven for extremists and a likely astronomical increase in the growth and trade of illicit and hard drugs. Afghanistan currently stands as the third-largest producer of opium in the world. Worst of these fears is the likely domino effect on other extremist groups in Asia, the Middle East and Africa and the spillover of weapons through illegal means to countries with extremist networks such as Al Qaeda, ISIS and ISWAP. What lessons, therefore, are there for Nigeria to learn, putting into context the activities of ISWAP and the Boko Haram Terrorists in the North East and the constant calls for the government to seek international assistance in the counter-insurgency operations and other threats across the country?

Events in Afghanistan have zoomed home to all Nigerians that, as a nation, our destiny is in our own hands. Now and then, Nigerians are quick to call on the government to seek international assistance anytime there is a slight setback in the military’s campaign. Of course, the government has never shied away from seeking help, but the divergent point remains the extent of such assistance. Since 2015, there has been a renewed synergy among countries around the Lake Chad Basin. The Armed Forces of Nigeria has continued to operate with forces from Chad, Niger and Cameroon, all Nigeria’s neighbours along the North East under the Multi-National Joint Task Force. Outside the region, it continues to receive assistance from countries such as the US, UK, France and Germany in training, provision of equipment, logistics support and intelligence sharing. The notion of having international forces coming to operate in Nigeria is an illusion that would be damaging to Nigeria’s national security, and the events in Afghanistan should discourage it now and in future.

The collapse of the Afghan’s security forces like a pack of cards in the face of the advancing Taliban fighters reflects a severe lack of popular support. Many Afghans have always perceived the foreign-backed Afghan security forces as an appendage of the invading western forces. Despite the foreign aid in training, operational vehicles, equipment, logistics and intelligence assets, the foreign-backed Afghan security forces could still not sustain the legitimate government of Ashraf Ghani in place as they do not enjoy the widespread support of the people. Securing and gaining local support is a critical success factor in counter-insurgency operations such as we have in Nigeria’s North East. This factor underscores the efforts placed by the Armed Forces of Nigeria at winning the hearts and minds of the people. It thus beholds the populace to reciprocate the military’s actions by providing helpful information to security forces and shun any assistance of any means to insurgents. Using social media to denigrate and disparage the military only serves to encourage the insurgents. The Armed Forces of Nigeria deserves all the support it could get. It has shown courage and resilience and has never failed in its constitutional role of ensuring the country’s territorial integrity.

Since it fled Kabul in 2001, the Taliban regime’s use of a vast mass of ungoverned areas across Afghanistan provided it with the enabling conditions to sustain its military activities. It continued to expand its control such that by July 2021, the Taliban controlled an estimated 54 per cent of Afghan districts. The lesson for Nigeria on this is the need for government to spread development and dominate barren and ‘uninhabited areas’ across the country, similar to ungoverned areas. Thankfully enough, the military has identified the importance of this given the recent decision of the Nigerian Army to conduct exercises in Falgore Forest, a game reserve located about 150 km from Kano city. Similar uninhabited areas exist in some parts of the North West, which provides a haven for bandits. We also have the vast space between Shaki and Nigeria’s border with the Republic of Benin running up North through West of Kwara and Niger States, as well as several others within the states which could offer abode for bandits. Leveraging the efforts of the military, the government may need to design a comprehensive strategy to integrate all the relevant MDAs responsible for border security and forest/game reserves, the military, police and other security and paramilitary agencies for the sole task of ensuring presence and monitoring of all remote uninhabited spaces across Nigeria.

This piece was contributed by Johnson Olawumi, a retired officer of the Nigerian Army, Abuja and a former Director-General NYSC.